Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Stories about love

‘Romance’ as a genre and how that genre impacts on us culturally has bothered me for a while. I say this not as some kind of literary snob – I’ve written plenty of romance and erotica over the years. I’ve read rather a lot of it as well.

It bothers me also that romance is denigrated as a genre, because it’s largely written by, and for women. Love is one of the most important things in our lives, it often defines who we will spend our days with, it impacts on us economically. Whether we breed or not, may have a lot to do with who we’re with. So does whether or not we’re persecuted. Who we are allowed to love has always been an intensely political question and there’s a great deal of power tied up in who is allowed to shag whom. Love is a subject to take seriously. Unfortunately if you want to publish in this genre you have to play by the rules and so can only tell certain kinds of story.

The romance genre is that it is all about beginnings. That rush of first love, and the establishment of a relationship. In a more traditional book, the conclusion is the marriage proposal. Life, for women, stops at marriage, in romances. There are of course always exceptions, but on the whole the romance story involves a young woman and a man. She will be beautiful and virtuous and worthy of love. He may well not be in the least bit virtuous or worthy. If there is an age difference, he will be older. If there’s a wealth difference or any other power difference, it will likely be in his favour.

Romance as a genre means straight romance. If the romance is LGBTQ then the odds are it will be specifically labelled as such. Back when I was writing them, I had to be clear about the pairing, the assumption being that a reader would not want to be surprised by the direction romance took. that bothered me a lot.  If the romance is polyamorous it won’t be labelled as romance usually. Fit, healthy, slim people (often with lifestyles that don’t suggest this is likely) fall in love. Yes, I know there’s You Before Me, but it’s unusual to have a romance with someone in a wheelchair, and he does have a lot of money…

Poverty (that isn’t overcome Cinderella-style), disability, and anything not hetro-normative is unusual in romance.

While all of that troubles me a lot, what troubles me most of all though is the obsession with the new relationship. We don’t have much in the way of stories about long term love. Romeo and Juliet are the model for romance – a couple of kids who get into each other’s pants and die shortly thereafter. Because otherwise it might get old, and stale. As though love cannot endure at that intensity. As if the only way for there to be long term love requires us to accept it settling down into some tamer, more domesticated form. That’s the story our culture tells itself, and I think that story is a long way short of being the whole truth.


Walking new paths through your mind

Humans are creatures of habit, and much of what we do, we can do on a kind of autopilot. The neural pathways we walk in our brains are the easiest to keep visiting, and so we can become locked into patterns of thinking and behaving. When reality conspires to affirm a way of thinking or being, we can be really persuaded by the truth of it. So, a few verifications that the socks are indeed lucky can make us sock-dependant!

The trouble is that what comes to us from outside can train us into habits of thinking and acting that don’t reflect who we are, and aren’t functional either. The child who is rewarded with attention for having a tantrum, or refusing to eat or sleep, is the obvious case in point here. We can learn early on that certain things get us our own way and it can become part of the regular routine. The technical term is conditioning, and the psychology of it is out there to be read if its a topic of interest.

Seeing a pattern of thought or behaviour in this way isn’t easy, because for us, these things seem normal. But, if something isn’t working, feels wrong and gets shitty results, it’s a good time to dig in and look for those underlying stories and pathways that we have in our heads.

Trying to unpick old lessons is hard. The easiest way to deal with conditioning, is to get a new layer of conditioning over the top of it. That often calls for outside help.

There was a period when my anxiety around post was massive. It wasn’t irrational – terrifying and life altering things were turning up in the post at unbearable frequency. So hearing the post became fearful. Then seeing a post person or van became fearful, because they were bringing the things… then the post office, and anything posty in any context started getting to me. A red postbox in the street could give me a queasy moment. Dysfunctional to say the least, and horrible to live with.

Other the last few years, there’s been no post drama, and a lot of good post. Review books, gifts from friends, letters I wanted… and now when I hear the letter box go, most days I’m fine. Some days I wonder if it’s the book I’m waiting for. Occasionally there’s a flicker of fear. I’ve built new associations with post. I offer this as an example because it’s not too emotive, and most of my other conditioning issues are.

People in abusive situations are trained to accept the abuse as normal – especially pernicious with child abuse where no other points of reference may exist for the victim. People suffering trauma have often internalised what happened as something to expect. Recovery means embedding new stories, creating new paths through the mind. To build something better, it helps a lot to be in supportive spaces with people who can give you a different sort of reality to play in.


Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.


Anything can be a teacher

Anything can be a teacher. Sometimes the lessons are all about moving away and holding boundaries, and those lessons can be urgent and unsettling. At the time of experiencing them, there’s not a lot of motivation for gratitude – which I think is reasonable and healthy. There’s a time and place for gratitude, and it isn’t during the period of being kicked in the shins!

Last year brought lessons. At the time, those lessons hurt, but I’ve noticed this year that I have, to a significant degree, made peace with it all. I’ve had self esteem issues all my life, I’m motivated to please others (unrepentantly so) and thin skinned. It means if someone decides to pick on me, I can get hurt. In my past there are people who knocked me down repeatedly and I struggled to get up, and it took a lot of time to recover from each round…

Last summer I faced character assassination, and attacks on self and life that could have broken me. I have no doubt that the intention was to do me as much damage as possible. But, the process was so full-on that I didn’t go along with it. Unusually for me, something kicked off inside me, refusing to accept the assessments of who I am, refusing to accept that it was ok for the people involved to be doing and saying what they did. Rather than internalise it as my failing, I took a long hard look at a whole bunch of people and decided that the problems were theirs and not mine, that I didn’t need them in my life, and that I didn’t have to be broken by them.

In the months since then, I’ve not regretted anything that I’ve done, and I’ve not regretted the loss of people who clearly considered me a nasty misuse of space. I feel lighter, freer, and happier. I’ve learned to hold my edges when attacked. I’ve come to feel a certain amount of gratitude for the experience that pushed me into being more willing to stick up for myself and no longer willing to internalise other people’s shit. It’s been a good learning experience, for me.

I know if I’d tried to respond with gratitude for the lessons at the time, it could easily have locked me into a place of hurt and reinforced the wrong things. Gratitude has its time and place, and sometimes distance is important. I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and while I don’t forgive the attempt to clip my wings, I am glad that I saw it fast enough to fly from the would-be clippers and not go back. With the right timing, gratitude can be a helpful part of letting go and moving on, leaving a person feeling empowered and enabled by the experience. Even if the experience itself was entirely shit.


Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.


Poor Little Me

The Poor Little Me is a character from Hopeless Maine, inspired in part by Eliza Carthy’s song ‘Me and Poor Little Me.’ I started wondering what a Poor Little Me would be like, and thinking about possible examples. It’s a really unpleasant way of being, but in a rather passive-aggressive kind of way.

The PLM says ‘oh, poor you, that’s so bad, you must feel terrible. That must be awful, I bet its really getting to you, you must hate it, you must really be struggling there.’ At first it sounds like sympathy, and when we’re hurting, sympathy is welcome. After a while it sounds like pity – because they do it a lot, at very little provocation. Given long enough exposure, and it sucks out confidence and power, and you become this frail, useless thing and they become the big, powerful thing. Poor you.

Of course we can do it to ourselves as well – if we’ve internalised those voices, or we like to wallow too much. There are times when a good dose of ingratitude and self pity are necessary for getting life into perspective and taking action. The problem is taking up residence there. If you look at everything and see how it could have gone better and say ‘poor me’ for what you didn’t get, you’ll talk yourself into victimhood, despair and dysfunction.

In terms of dealing with the PLM as an inner voice, noticing it happening is key, and then challenging it. It’s important to deliberately look for the good in things as well as seeing what’s awry, this balance is essential to decent mental health. Often the destructive voices that live in our heads come from other places, so identifying whose voice it is can help with an eviction process.

In terms of having a PLM in your life, again noticing is key, because it will be offered in the guise of kindness and they will be ever so nice to you as they tell you how ghastly your life is. It’s very hard to protest or resist. The only method I’ve found is to step back. If rumbled, a PLM can become nasty – far more distressed that you could see them that way than they will ever be by the idea that they were making you uncomfortable.

How do we avoid becoming a PLM? Watch out for pity. Sympathy in a time of crisis can be supportive, but if it’s all we offer, it sounds like pity, and it also focuses the recipient on their woes. Make the effort to go further, offer something positive, encouraging or helpful alongside your sympathy. Act to empower the people you’re dealing with. Empty sympathy noises are easy – which is why we make them, so becoming damaging to someone else may be more about laziness than malice. Empathising and working out what could change things is a good deal more useful.

PLMing may happen to silence another person, perhaps with a feeling of justification because they keep going on about their woes. Yes, it’s terrible, poor you, you can shut up about it now. When it happens for those reasons, it doesn’t solve problems, or tackle a PLM living in someone else’s head, and it can isolate people who really are in trouble.

And if you’re curious about the PLM as a character, do click through to this blog post – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/salamandra-and-the-plm/


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


Seasonal Blues

It is a perfectly reasonable, human thing to struggle with the winter. The shorter days, often with far less sunlight mean those of us in the northern part of the earth are short of vitamin D. Some of us suffer seasonal affective disorder. For some, the cold, the treacherous footing, and the dark nights are a downer. This is the first year in ages where those dark nights haven’t been a real barrier to me having a social life, and that’s in no small part because I’ve now frequently got things to do of a Sunday afternoon.

For anyone whose finances are tight, winter adds extra pressure – for some it means a choice between heating and eating, for some even that choice isn’t available. This is an unkind season, an isolating season, a killing season. Many people roll out of the festive period into the harsh reality of increased debt at the start of the New Year.

I often find there’s a backlash after midwinter festivity – yes, in theory the light is returning, but it seems a long way off, it still gets dark early, it’s still cold, there are a good two months of this to come… but now there’s nothing much to look forward to. The feeling that it should be getting easier can contribute to actually feeling worse about it.

I’m luckier than many people because there are viable solutions for me. I can add colour, warmth and light as needed. I do now have the resources – financial and energetic – to connect with people at this time of year. I have places I can go and things I can do. But I’ve also been on the other side of this, cut off, cold, stuck, and without the resources to change any of it. That’s not a good place to be. If you know someone who could be isolated by this time of year, drop them a line, call them, if it makes sense to show up, show up. It can be a lifeline – in a practical sense and also emotionally.


In search of perfect indulgence

Perfect indulgence satisfies a craving without creating new problems of its own. It feels like a treat, it gives pleasure to body, mind and /or soul, but there’s no ghastly price tag. The problem often is that when seeking indulgence, what we get is excess and the unpleasant consequences of excess instead. Here in early January, watching people I know on social media talking about the need to detox, rest their livers and deal with the impact on their waistlines, it is clear that for many, winter festivities meant excess, not indulgence.

Taken at face value it seems like a no-brainer that we’d avoid indulging to the point where it instead becomes a source of misery. Speaking as someone who has been drunk enough to fall off their own shoes, I’m all too aware it doesn’t work like that. We think we’ll get away with it. We don’t recognise when we’ve reached the high point and tipped over into something else. We think there’s more fun to be had. No one goes out with the intention of drinking until they throw up.

There’s also, I think, an issue that the more insufficiency we feel, the more likely we are to go for excess rather than indulgence. As though the accumulated feeling of need can be answered in a single binge session. A better pattern of ongoing good stuff means less getting into the desire to surfeit. On the whole, lots of small bits of good are of more use than a lot of rather narrow living and a big splurge. Of course there can be financial patterns underpinning this, with the need to cut back after the splurge creating the desire for the next one.

Joy, jollity, fun – we may be inclined to think that these are things to do spontaneously, with a carefree spirit and no counting of the costs. However, like everything else in life, it works better with a bit of reflection and self knowledge. A bit of canny balancing can make your indulgences go a long way, and keep the costs minimal. A lie in until eight or nine at the weekend feels blissful to me, and leaves me most of the day to do other things. Get up at lunch time, groggy, and the day can be a write-off.

If your acts of indulgence leave you feeling horrible afterwards, you’re doing it wrong. It’s taken me long enough to properly figure this out! Other options exist aside from binges, and those other, more measured approaches can deliver a lot more fun for your money, and don’t come back to bite you the next day. Binges don’t solve underlying needs, they don’t fill empty holes in the self, they don’t compensate us for lives that are otherwise drab and unsatisfying. A pattern of binge and starve, over-extend and recover, splurge and pay of the debt can lock us into cycles where we never get to feel like we’re ahead, never really get to feel good about things. The less good we feel, the more attractive the binge becomes. Break the cycle, and the scope for having a good time more of the time actually improves.